Expert Voices

Lab-On-A-Chip Tech is Revolutionary, Yet Universities Cling to 'Dark Ages' Animal Models (Op-Ed)

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Pascaline Clerc is senior director of Animal Research Issues at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Clerc studied mitochondria at the University of Grenoble, France, before joining the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the University of Maryland in Baltimore as a post-doctoral fellow, where she studied cell-death pathways and brain metabolism after traumatic brain injury, including in animal models. She contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights

IBM's latest development of a "brain-like" computer chip will allow scientists to better understand the human brain, and from the perspective of the humane treatment of animals, is likely to decrease reliance on animal studies related to brain research. 

Introduced Aug. 7, its creators designed the latest chip — TrueNorth, of their cognitive program SyNAPSE — to be space and energy efficient, while including networks of neurons and synapses similar to the architecture of the human brain. This U.S. military-funded project uses cognitive computing to emulate the brain's abilities for perception, action and cognition. 

TrueNorth chip holds great potential for patients. This new type of computing system could improve medical imaging devices, and connecting several TrueNorth chips into a complex neuronal network would allow for the development of neurobiological models. This will tremendously facilitate human understanding of brain functions, including the ones linked to anxiety disorders. In combination with cognitive-computing technologies, this human brain-like system integrates vision, audition and multi-sensory fusion, and can process data in real time with less power than a conventional computer. It could revolutionize the way we analyze data and make decisions. [Human Brain Microchip Is 9,000 Times Faster Than a PC ]

As scientists are developing such integrated, pathway-based approaches, they are already starting to replace the use of animals in fields such as toxicology — such technologies will allow scientists to compile information in one place and better predict outcomes.

True North is not the first innovative program with the potential to replace the use of outdated animal studies. Others include:  

As a scientist who worked for 12 years in a laboratory studying mitochondria-related cell death and metabolic processes, I am amazed by these advances. As such technologies continue to develop, the potential exists to accurately find treatments for a range of human diseases and disorders much more quickly than in the past. In fact, outstanding research on alternatives and animal use in the life sciences, such as various human-on-a-chip programs, 3D cell-culture models and high-throughput screening models, were presented at the International 9th World Congress.

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Two steps forward, one step back

For many reasons, the U.S. government and others must invest in these new technologies. 

Not only do common animal tests cause enormous suffering, but they have significant limitations for helping humans. With animal models, developing a new drug takes about 14 years and $2 billion, with a failure rate of approximately 92 percent. 

The nation should be investing taxpayer money in new technologies that can more quickly lead to actual human therapies, even therapies tailored to individual patients. 

The high ethical and economical costs, and lack of apparent benefit, should be reason enough for certain animal experiments to immediately come to an end, and prohibited altogether.

An example of animal-based research that should be reconsidered is an anxiety and depression study recently approved at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). It involves depriving infant monkeys of their mothers, then killing them to study their brains. This may sound familiar to those who were around in the 1940's, when such experiments were in the spotlight. 

It is shocking that such an archaic study has been given the green light, despite significant public outrage and opposition from some members of the school's own committee responsible for approving animal research studies. The $525,000 government grant must have been too hard for some at the university to resist, but is this the best way to invest precious tax-payer dollars intended for critical research?  

The research protocol for the study involves a control group of 20 newborn monkeys raised by their mothers for six-months. It will compare those individuals to a group of 20 newborn monkeys isolated from their mother immediately after birth and housed in solitary confinement until they are 21to 42 days old, before being paired with another "motherless" monkey. The monkeys are then scheduled to undergo a series of stress and fear studies by exposing them to snakes and human intruders. 

The monkeys will then have regular PET and MRI scans, blood and cerebro-spinal fluid collections, and skin-punch biopsies, before being killed between 52 to 78 weeks after birth.

UW-Madison is the home to past maternal deprivation studies conducted by Dr. Harry Harlow, who concluded — not surprisingly — that maternal contact is important for early development. 

As we know from other previous studies, these monkeys and their mothers will undoubtedly suffer immensely at the expense of taxpayers. They will experience crippling anxiety, depression and other debilitating behavioral problems — all for questionable human benefit.

Countless maternal deprivation studies have been performed in various species since then, and whatever human benefits came from these experiments was at far too high of a cost in animal suffering. Anxiety disorders and depression are serious conditions that need to be studied and should not be left untreated. However, I am extremely skeptical about the scientific value of maternal deprivation experiments for the development of new therapies. [Animal Data Is Not Reliable for Human Health Research (Op-Ed)]

If the United States wants to remain a world leader in research, we need to rethink the way we conduct scientific research, and this starts by investing in innovative approaches such as SyNAPSE program, and by ending the funding of painful, distressful and unnecessary animal experiments. 

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)